Gamified training gives accountants fun whodunits to solve


Continuing education courses can sometimes put accountants and tax professionals to sleep, but a new breed of e-learning is making the process more enjoyable and engaging.

Accounting and tax education provider Surgent recently added a course known as Red Flag Mania to its Surgent IQ online learning center. The game-based experience uses true crime stories to teach fraud detection and problem-solving skills using actors and some of the real-life participants.

During the pandemic, most of the CPE courses this past year have needed to depend on online learning since most accounting conferences have moved to Zoom and other virtual environments. But accountants and tax professionals can have trouble keeping their attention focused on the computer screen, just like younger students trying to pursue their education with so many classrooms still closed across the country. Making both CPE and non-CPE courses more enjoyable by turning them into whodunits like a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of “Law and Order” can help teach new content and skills even to the most jaded accountants who have learned to lower their expectations for any CPE session excitement.

“One of the things that I have been noticing over the years is that CPE and learning for accountants tends to be very static and flat,” said Kelly Richmond Pope, an associate professor of accounting at DePaul University in Chicago and a Surgent Faculty Fellow who co-developed Red Flag Mania. “We’re just delivering information, but we’re not engaging in content. Taking a gamified approach allows a learner to be engaged in a way that leads to a better experience and more retention. Red Flag Mania is a combination of film, game mechanics, investigation and good old-fashioned fun in order to have a new approach to what a CPE experience or a learning experience can be.”

During the training, users watch a video segment, hear from various characters and examine issues related to fraud, auditing, taxes, data analytics and other subjects. “It’s almost like watching ‘Law and Order,’ but then you’re trying to solve a case through evidence and interviews and questions and all kinds of things that enter into an investigation,” said Pope. “The story is really the setting, and when you have a good story you can teach any topic. A fraud can happen because of a poor audit, a fraud can happen because a person has a tax issue, a fraud can happen because a person is in an ethical dilemma, or a fraud can be solved through using data analytics. So, you can use a fraud story as a pathway to teach all of these other topics.”

The stories are based on actual cases, but the names are mostly altered. “We change the names to protect everyone, but we base all the evidence we create off the real record, so we try to keep between 90 and 95% real situations,” said Pope. “What we like to do is have a segment of the real victim or someone from the real case come in and sum it up at the end, so we try to stay true to the case. We don’t fictionalize too much. We do maybe change the names, but we stick to the true crime case.”

The videos show a combination of real-life people and actors, not animated figures or avatars. “I find in my research that when people interact with real people, the emotional side comes into play,” said Pope. “Our biases come into our decision making because we feel like the scenario is more real. You’re more likely to take it seriously when you see real people.”

In addition to CPE credit courses, some of the training is non-CPE. “Some things are just for accountants to advance a skill set,” said Pope. “The Surgent IQ platform is where we fit outside the CPE model if one wants to take it without needing CPE.”

Pope has been doing Red Flag Mania workshops with a number of accounting organizations, state CPA societies and CPA firms, including the Institute of Management Accountants, Virginia Society of CPAs, the Indiana CPA Society, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and Frazier & Deeter.

Gamifying can go beyond training. Another group that’s working with accounting firms to create gamified environments to bring teams together is ConnectRship, a company in Springfield, New Jersey, which provides virtual tournaments around trivia competitions, word associations, charades, scavenger hunts, memory games and other activities. It has worked with firms such as Marks Paneth, Deloitte’s advisory group, Untracht Early, Thompson Greenspon, and Louis Plung & Company, and has an event scheduled in June with PKF O’Connor Davies.

For Red Flag Mania, the feedback has been mostly positive so far. “The kinds of reactions we’ve gotten are ‘this is the best online experience I’ve ever had,’” said Pope. “We integrate so many different elements. There’s a film. There are actors who can show up and talk. There are voicemails you can listen to. There’s evidence you’re reviewing. There are websites you’re reviewing. It’s a very interactive type of experience, and I think it’s a really disruptive approach to CPE training that people aren’t used to seeing.”

So far, she has co-developed about 20 courses for Red Flag Mania and hopes to add 20 more by the end of the year. “We just keep creating, looking at good stories, and thinking about what good learning outcomes or learning objectives can be tied to these stories,” said Pope. “What makes the approach unique is we are doing story-based learning and story based training, and we’re using that as a foundation to teach topics. What we’ve done historically in the learning model for accountants is we’ve taught topics. Now what we’re doing is we’re tying stories around topics so that retention is higher.”

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